To be successful, the great clean energy transition now underway in Minnesota will require a stronger commitment and better training opportunities for minority workers, women and veterans.
A Clean Energy Economy Minnesota (CEEM) report released earlier this year showed that the industry is slightly more diverse than the state, with 72.5% of clean energy workers being white, 17.5% Hispanic and 11.3% of one breed or more. Still, industry executives believe the sector will grow 8% next year and likely continue this trend for several years, leading to increased demand for workers who will need to come from non-traditional and black, Indigenous people. and color (BIPOC).
Just consider the bulky documents called “integrated resource plans” that public energy companies regularly file with the Public Utilities Commission. For example, Xcel Energy’s long-term plan calls for the construction of thousands of megawatts of wind and solar power. On a smaller scale, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power, and even the Great River Energy co-op have equally aggressive plans to shut down coal-fired power plants and add solar, wind, battery storage and other resources.
State officials, union leaders and clean energy companies prefer these jobs to be done by people in Minnesota rather than people from out of state, which has happened. in the past for heavy energy work. But without a larger workforce, it will be a tough climb.
COVID-19 has slowed the progress of clean industry attempts to reach minorities, women and veterans. But bright spots are emerging, including a new training center in North Minneapolis and a training program slated to begin next year in Ramsey County. Additionally, wind and solar associations, as well as clean energy organizations, have launched inclusion and equity initiatives. Other training courses are available at state colleges and through nonprofit organizations.
Gregg Mast, executive director of CEEM, called the growth of clean energy jobs a “bright spot in the Minnesota economy for many years” and noted that the percentage of minorities in the industry ” slightly exceeds ”that of the overall workforce. But few women are working in clean energy and it has become a persistent problem, he said.
Another challenge has been the shortage of workers, with nine of 10 clean energy companies reporting difficulties in hiring staff. “To solve this problem, we must continue to attract people from all walks of life and all backgrounds to the industry,” he said. “Each person brings unique knowledge and skills to our common work of decarbonizing all sectors of our economy. Supporting recorded learning and investing in training and education programs accessible to all has never been more important.
A recent lunch debate at the Gateway Solar Expo focused on industry diversification. Sponsored by the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA), the two-day conference brought together the state’s solar leaders to hear experts talk about regulatory issues, new technologies, market trends and other issues. The conference audience seemed more inclusive than in previous years, an encouraging sign that times are changing.
One problem with training opportunities is that they rarely exist in the neighborhoods that need them the most. For example, the founder, president and CEO of Renewable Energy Partners, Jamez Staples, developed a clean energy training center in North Minneapolis because other options were miles away from the suburbs. The IBEW, an association of electrical workers, has a training center in St. Michael and Century College has a program in White Bear Lake, he said.
This year, Staples received a grant of more than $ 2 million to complete construction of its regional apprenticeship training center. He started Northgate Development to train adults and students at Minneapolis public schools in the skills needed for the solar and clean energy industries. The building, formerly a state labor center, is located in a location accessible by bus or car and in a neighborhood with high unemployment.
The training center has a large rooftop solar installation and an innovative battery project, among the first in the country to test the concept of a virtual power plant. According to Staples, interns can learn in the classroom and learn by doing. Two non-profit partners also use the center for classes. “We’re focused on bringing training to the neighborhood,” Staples said. “We saw the opportunity to focus on solar training, but also to expand into other sectors such as energy efficiency and stormwater management. “
Red Lake Tribe member Robert Blake founded Native Sun Community Power Development to train more Native Americans for careers in clean energy. In addition, he owns Solar Bear, which has completed several building projects on the Red Lake Nation property in northern Minnesota.
Blake has worked with the Ramsey County Workforce Innovation Board, which plans to offer training on solar energy and energy efficiency in the spring of 2022. In addition, he has spoken at Red Lake Nation schools on solar energy. and received an enthusiastic response. “It’s really exciting to see the kids getting into their heads,” said Blake.
Another panelist, Eric Pasi, recounted how his interest in clean energy is in part determined by the plight of people whose lives will be threatened by rising sea levels and other climatic calamities. Her father grew up in Tonga, an island in the South Pacific less than 10 feet above sea level.
After graduating in 2007 from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Pasi applied to several clean energy companies before Impact Power Solutions (IPS Solar) hired him. Today, as the Director of Corporate Development, Pasi seeks to help others find the kind of career he has created. Last year, he published “Green Wave: A Guide to Success in the Green Recovery” to help job seekers in their quest, offering interviews with industry leaders, advice on entrepreneurship and ideas on how clean energy fits into the economic recovery from the pandemic.
While Pasi believes there are clean energy opportunities for members of the BIPOC community, he wants to see more people of color start businesses. “I really think we need to start looking at our policies in ways that foster the growth of people of color in the business community,” he said.
Other panelists pointed out that clean energy offers more opportunities than installing solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Channon Lemon, vice president of economic development for the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said strategy, marketing and financing are essential parts of clean energy businesses.
With the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country, the Twin Cities have “a lot of talented people who are ready to step into a business and make a substantial difference, perhaps as Director of Marketing, Head of Businesses. operations, social media manager. expert, ”she said. “All of these are essential for business success. “
Lemon and Pasi said clean energy could be a good area for people who have served their time and want to contribute. IPS Solar hired a “returning citizen” several years ago and Pasi said he had become a close friend. “People shouldn’t be linked to a bad time in their lives,” he said. “We deserve to give everyone a chance.”
Panel member Jim Vickers Jr, president of technical business services in Ohio, said just thinking about moving into a diverse workforce no longer cuts him off at a time when companies seek change. societal. “Large organizations no longer ask us to consider diversity; they tell us that’s what they expect if you want to do business with them, ”he said. “And they’re setting a model and they’re very, very creative. The solar industry will have to learn to collaborate with everyone.
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